Pakistani police have arrested a Christian man — described by some as a “pastor,” others an “evangelist” — for allegedly desecrating a Quran by writing his name on it. Friends and family say the charge is impossible, however, because Shahbaz Babu is illiterate.
The British Pakistani Christian Association (BPCA), which tracks cases of Christian persecution in the Islamic country, reports that Babu, a resident of Kamahan village, Lahore, will be prosecuted under Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy law following the accusation. The man who took the case to police, an individual named Haji Nadeem, said he found torn pages of the Quran on the street with “Shahbaz Babu” written on them.
He did not claim to see Babu write his name on the papers, nor have any other eyewitnesses corroborated the claim. As Babu cannot write, police will likely be unable to procure a handwriting sample to compare the pages of the Quran in question.
The BPCA spoke to Babu’s relatives, who all deny the charges and have an alternative explanation for why Babu found himself at the wrong end of a law that is punishable by death:
They all believe the blasphemy allegation has been laid against Mr Babu because of a rivalry between the primary complainant Mr Nadeem and Mr Babu’s brother George Masih. Apparently George Masih owns a thriving grocery shop and Mr Nadeem has held a long term desire to own the shop for himself.
Other reports indicate that Nadeem himself believes the Quranic pages were a forgery, though he blamed a rival Christian group in the neighborhood, telling police he was not convinced that Babu wrote on the pages himself.
Babu may have also garnered the attention of Muslim radicals due to his proselytizing in the neighborhood. “Christians and many Muslims attend his services for healing and blessings and many of those Muslims were contemplating converting to Christianity,” the BPCA claims, citing interviews with family.
Activists familiar with Pakistan’s application of the blasphemy law fear that Babu may remain in prison for years without due process. “I wish the matter is resolved out of court as soon as possible, otherwise Shahbaz’s fate will be the same as the Aasia Bibi, Sawan Masih, Zaffar Bhatti and many others who have been languishing in jails for years,” Nasir Saeed, director of the UK based Pakistani Christian support group the Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS), said in a statement. Saeed was referring to other Christian targets of the blasphemy law.
The Christian Times estimates over 100 Pakistanis a year, mostly Christians, are arrested and imprisoned over unsubstantiated “blasphemy” claims. Those who escape, however, often have to contend with the threat of an extrajudicial killing at the hands of a Muslim mob. The BPCA notes that police have already transferred Babu to a more centrally-located prison to keep him safe from just such a mob.
Muslim mobs calling for the death, and sometimes killing, those accused of “blasphemy” are not uncommon in Pakistan. This week, on the anniversary of the assassination of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, mobs have been calling for the death of his son, Shaan, who issued a Christmas greeting on social media and called for Christians to pray for the aforementioned Aasia Bibi, in prison for having allegedly drank water out of a cup a coworker alleged was designated for Muslims, therefore “contaminating” the water. Bibi has been sentenced to death. His father was also killed for criticizing Bibi’s conviction.
In addition to calling for executions for those accused of blasphemy, mobs have beaten and sometimes burned to death the victims of their ire. In a particularly gruesome case in 2014, a young pregnant couple was burned alive in a kiln following an accusation that they had burned pages of the Quran. Neither Shahzad Masih nor Shama Bibi were literate, leaving them unable to know whether pages they burned were indeed from a Quran or not.